Tonya held the door open and stared in disbelief at the brick wall in front of her. Her finger traced over the mortar lines as tiny bits fell to the floor. The solid thud of her fist told her this was not the way she could go. Releasing the door, it closed on silent hinges as she walked to the second door. Hesitation stalled her hand. What if this was a dead end?
The darkness that lurked within the next room was daunting. Tonya stared into the dark, straining to see what lay beyond. Light from behind her outlined her shadow through the door frame. She took two steps forward and allowed the door to sever all light. Now she was fully immersed in the darkness, unable to see her own hand in front of her.
She felt her pupils widen, it pained her as she closed her eyes trying to hide from the darkness. She saw less with her eyes open than shut, like the world disappeared beneath a magician’s cloak.
Her steps forward were slowed with caution. Tonya’s left knee found something as she gasped in pain. When the throbbing subsided, she found a wall system similar to the one in the first room of the labyrinth. Had she been able to see, she would have repeated the same tactic of running along the top of the rails. Across the room a soft glow of light revealed a door, catching her attention. A red exit sign lit above it sang out a siren’s song to her. She was faced with a maze through the dark to a door that may or may not be the correct way out. With no other option available, she placed her hands on the rails and proceeded forward.
An overhead light shown down on her, bathing her in intense light. Shielding her eyes, the light fought its way through any crack or thin membrane to penetrate her eyes. It was a demon of light, clawing and biting its way through her defenses. Her hand came away a fraction of an inch, allowing the light to assault her closed eyes and show her the red glow of the inside of her eyelids. When she was able to bear the light, she saw that she could only see a couple feet in any direction.
Something moved in the darkness, not far beyond the light’s reach.
Where she stood, she faced a two way split. She couldn’t see which would benefit her more, so she turned to her right and continued on as the overhead light continued to pelt her. The path turned around on itself and now headed to the left. She heard the movement too late to react as a spear maneuver to her midsection sent her flying backwards. Tonya lay sprawled on her back as the woman tried to pin her down. The woman dressed in black wasn’t trying to hurt her. It seemed like she was only trying to slow her down.
Tonya bucked her hips, throwing the woman off her. As Tonya got up, she could hear shuffling footsteps all around her.
She continued on as another black-clod woman squared off against her. Tonya noticed that the woman’s legs were smaller in comparison to all the others. She might be a boxer. The woman immediately threw a combo of jabs, pushing Tonya back. Tonya attacked with several kicks to the woman’s ribs. With a boxer’s training, she did nothing to avoid the kicks, but leaned into them. The woman continued throwing combos to Tonya’s face. A few jabs connected, but most met empty air. Tonya wiped the trickle of blood coming from her nose. The woman threw a punch as Tonya stepped into her and secured a clench around her neck. The woman was helpless to defend against Tonya’s knees as they riddled her midsection. Finally given in, the woman dropped her arms around her stomach and folded to the floor. Tonya stepped around her and moved on to the next person.
Tonya wound her way through the twists and turns before male figure stood before her. He was wearing all black and a cocky smile as he flexed his arms over his head. Tonya admired his form for a second before delivering a solid kick to his liver, dropping him in an instant. He laid there moaning in pain. As Tonya walked around him he gave her the middle finger.
She was now close to the door. Another male figure stood before her with half the body weight and even fewer muscles than the last. He went immediately for a take down at her legs. She managed to get her feet off the ground before he made contact and remained on top as he crashed to the ground under her. He scrambled to hang on to her as she kicked her legs free. Once she made it past him, he rolled over and casually got to his feet. Tonya stood ready for him, but his only movement was a hand gesture at the door. It must be some unsaid rule for them she told herself. Without taking her eyes from him, she backed away towards the door. Once at the illuminated door, she opened it and saw a small ledge overlooking moving water. Without a thought or hesitation, she jumped in.
The unexpected force of the current swept her away as she held her breath underwater. She tumbled along, bouncing off the bottom and sidewalls as she was whisked along in the dark. Up and down, left and right were in limbo. She lost all sense of direction as the current increased, pushing her faster. Panic knocked at her door, seeking admittance as she fought to keep the precious air in her lungs and the sanity in her mind.
The floor angled upwards as as a powerful jet of water ejected her onto metal grating, allowing her catch her breath. She coughed and lay on her side, the last of her energy threatening to leave her. She felt rough hands slide under her arms and drag her away from the water. Tonya was laid on the cold floor as someone toweled her.
The stranger’s older face held concern as she spoke, “You do well. Fourteen place. Only men before you. One guy almost die! You strong.” Tonya looked up at the woman’s slanted eyes and nodded, showing that she understood her. After scanning her lanyard, the woman placed it around Tonya’s neck. Tonya double-checked the contents and found them undisturbed.
Tonya got to her feet and staggered towards a chair. A young male with olive toned skin helped her sit and handed her a protein bar and an energy drink. The protein bar tasted like cardboard fruit while the drink was caffeinated sugar powered by the worst guava flavor she had ever tasted. Despite the horrendous tastes, she managed to down them both and asked for another bar. She downed several more salty fruit drinks along with more of the cardboard protein bars. With her feet under her again, she headed to the locker room as a burly security guard escorted her.
He bobbed his head to the beat of the thumping music. The tunnel snaked its way around several exhibition areas where people pummeled one another with padded weapons similar to ones Tonya saw up close and personal earlier in the labyrinth. As they arrived at the locker rooms, the man stood guard while she scanned her key card and opened the door.
“Thanks.” She said. The man shot her a pair of finger pistols before leaving with a smile.
Tonya sat in front of her locker and put her head in her hands. She was tired. With the light green, Tonya opened her locker and found another square letter with purple and black ribbon. She pulled out the letter and picked at the ribbon, not fully committing any effort. The knot loosened and the ribbon lay across her lap as she read. The same tight handwriting scrawled across the paper. She could feel the indents of each letter on the backside of the paper.
First off, congratulations on advancing. I was worried when the two of you took one of the most challenging routes. Even though it was shorter, I feared you wouldn’t get through fast enough.
I’m sorry about your friend. I can’t do anything to help her without revealing who I am. I hope you didn’t get too close to her. She would have made a great ally in the Games.
The next event is my least favorite, it will require an iron stomach on your part to get through. You will get a choice of eating something or doing a physical challenge. I would highly recommend that you do the eating over the challenge. You will compete with a random group of contestants. It will determine the bottom twenty-five to be eliminated and place you in the top fifty.
The event is simple and draws a crowd. The cameras will be in your face and the crowd will go nuts. Don’t think about it, just eat what is on the plate. It will be far faster than trying to complete the physical challenge.
Good luck. I believe in you.
She folded the paper and slipped it into her waistband, along with the ribbon and the first letter. Tonya went to the stalls and locked the door behind her. She flushed both letters and ribbons down the toilet, securing the trust her helper placed in her. Back at her locker, she grabbed her toiletries and headed to the showers with her towel over her shoulder.
The water was steaming and comforting. She ran her hands through her wet hair, letting out all the tension. A hot shower was always her secret place where she could feel at peace. Nothing of the day crossed her mind. She transported herself to a time when she was younger. A time when she felt alive and connected to those around her.
Tonya was nine years old with hair bleached out from the sun. Her freckles ran rampant across her nose and cheeks while dirt stained her clothes and hands.
Her father had always been her biggest fan. Tonya’s mother spent a good time working in town, trying to support the family while her father recovered from his accident. They lived just outside town, beyond the borders of the politics and regulations where freedom was bred and infused in the people. Tonya helped her father around the house when her mother was working. Her father was getting better, but the cough that rattled his chest concerned her.
Tonya and her father were drinking tea on the porch steps when he looked to her and asked, “Do you want to play catch?” He knew the answer, but asked anyway.
“Yeah!” She sat her glass down and raced into the house to get her football. When she got back to the porch she leapt off the porch with the ball overhead and whooped in triumph. Her father smiled and used the railing to pull himself up with a grunt. She was already across the yard tossing the ball up and catching it.
As he came closer he called out, “I’m open!” She sent the ball spiraling to him. “Nice one.” He tossed the ball back to her. They continued playing catch in the bright sunshine until he started coughing. Tonya ran to his side and helped him to the porch so he could sit and try to drink some tea.
She hated seeing him robbed of his strength. Before the accident, he worked in the town’s factory all day and made every effort to play catch with her when he got home. Now, it seemed an effort for him to do menial tasks before the cough took control.
Tonya turned off the shower, bringing herself back to the present. Her flowing tears no longer mingled with the water.
TO BE CONTINUED…